Inuit leader Mary Simon named as Canada’s 1st Indigenous governor general

Inuit leader Mary Simon will serve as the Queen’s new representative in Canada, marking the first time an Indigenous person has held the role.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the Queen has accepted his recommendation of Simon, a past president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national Inuit organization, to be the 30th governor general during a news conference at the Canadian Museum of History Tuesday morning.

“I can confidently say that my appointment is a historic and inspirational moment for Canada and an important step forward on the long path towards reconciliation,” said Simon.

Simon, an Inuk from Kuujjuaq, a small hamlet on the coast of Ungava Bay in northeastern Quebec, worked as an announcer and producer with CBC North before starting a decades-long career advocating for Indigenous rights.

She helped negotiate the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975, a landmark deal between the Cree and Inuit in Quebec’s north, the provincial government and Hydro-Québec.

Widely seen as the country’s “first modern treaty,” the province acknowledged Cree and Inuit rights in the James Bay region for the first time — such as exclusive hunting, fishing and trapping rights and self-governance in some areas — and offered financial compensation in exchange for the construction of massive new hydroelectric dams to fuel the growing province’s demand for new energy sources.

Canada’s 1st Arctic ambassador

Simon was subsequently elected president of Makivik Corp. in 1982, the organization created to administer the funds that the Inuit received from the development on their lands. The organization now manages tens of millions of dollars worth of investments, including an ownership stake in Canadian North, a major air carrier in the Arctic.

In 1986, Simon was tapped to lead the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), a group created in 1977 to represent the Inuit in all the Arctic countries. At the ICC, she championed two priorities for Indigenous Peoples of the north: protecting their way of life from environmental damage and pushing for responsible economic development on their traditional territory. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mary Simon arrive for an announcement at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., on Tuesday, July 6, 2021. Simon, an Inuk leader and former Canadian diplomat, has been named as Canada’s next governor general — the first Indigenous person to serve in the role. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

In 2002, former prime minister Jean Chrétien named her Canada’s first Arctic ambassador, a position where Simon worked closely with the eight other circumpolar countries to bolster co-operation in the region.

Trudeau criticized for his vetting of Payette 

The appointment comes more than five months after Julie Payette resigned from the post after a scathing external review found she had presided over a “toxic” and “poisoned” workplace at Rideau Hall, with episodes of “yelling, screaming, aggressive conduct, demeaning comments and public humiliations.”

The third-party review gathered testimony from more than 90 people and was triggered by a CBC News story about alleged mistreatment by Payette and her second-in-command, who also later resigned. Payette has said she takes workplace harassment seriously.

While largely a ceremonial role, the governor general also serves as commander-in-chief of the Canadian Armed Forces and represents Canada at events, ceremonies and official visits at home and abroad.

One of the governor general’s most important responsibilities is to ensure that Canada always has a prime minister and a stable government in place that has the confidence of a functioning Parliament.

Other duties include:

  • Presiding over the swearing-in of the prime minister, the chief justice of Canada and cabinet ministers.
  • Summoning, proroguing and dissolving Parliament.
  • Delivering the speech from the throne and giving royal assent to acts of Parliament.
  • Signing official documents and meeting regularly with the prime minister.

After facing heavy criticism he didn’t properly vet Payette, the prime minister launched a new advisory board  — chaired by Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc and the country’s top bureaucrat, interim Clerk of the Privy Council Janice Charette — to find the next viceregal this time around.

Julie Payette resigned from her post as governor general in a cloud of controversy on Jan. 21. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The board drafted a short list of candidates for Trudeau to consider.

Opposition parties had questioned Trudeau’s decision to not use former prime minister Stephen Harper’s advisory committee process to suggest suitable candidates and suggested Trudeau got swept up in the celebrity status of Payette, a former astronaut.

Since Payette’s resignation, Supreme Court Justice Richard Wagner has been juggling his top court duties with serving as acting governor general.